Southern Africa Report
SAR, Vol 14 No 1, December 1998
THE HOUSE GUN
A REVIEW BY LOIS BROWNE
Lois Browne, a Toronto based writer, is a member of the SAR editorial collective.
Nadine Gordimer. The House Gun. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1988. 294pp. ISBN 0-374-17307-9
Apartheid in South Africa is officially over, but the violence that underpinned the white regime for nearly 50 years lives on. Today, however, it is as likely to ravage the lives of middle-class whites as any other citizen.
Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun, a story of a white, middle-class family changed forever by violence, doesn't attempt to create an allegory of life in South Africa today. But in her unfolding of this private tragedy, all the themes of anger, guilt, truth and reconciliation that dominate the public scene are just as centrally located.
The family are the Lindgards. Harald and Claudia Lindgard are `liberal' whites - he a senior insurance executive involved in the housing sector, she a doctor who for years has worked one day a week at a clinic that provides the only health services available to poor blacks. Their only child is 20-something Duncan, an architect, involved in a volatile relationship with a suicidal young woman, Natalie.
One unremarkable evening, a messenger comes to turn Harald and Claudia's calm, protected life inside out. The messenger is from Duncan's household where he lives communally with a handful of young white and black men. Among the things they share is a gun that was "always somewhere about, no use having it for protection if when the time came no one would remember where it was safely stashed away." Duncan, they are told, has been arrested for using that gun to murder one of his housemates.
Although a murder is at the heart of the story, there is no who-dun-it mystery. There is never any doubt that Duncan pulled the trigger. There is not even a mystery about Duncan's motive, although that reveals itself more slowly. But there is a mystery for the Lindgards who cannot understand how it is that their intelligent and caring son can be brought to kill another human being.
Overnight, Harald and Claudia become consumed by this question.
During the pre-trial period, Harald and Claudia seek the truth in their memories. They examine the choices they made for their son, hoping to identify what combination of influences and events made him a killer. They sent him to a boarding school where a school mate subsequently killed himself. Was their reaction - a lunch and assurances of their love and support - inadequate? They didn't advise him to flee his country to avoid two-years of military service. He didn't see combat, but was his training as a soldier a contributing factor?
But as Harald and Claudia turn over the past, other choices they have made also surface, posing much larger questions of guilt. As an insurance executive, Harald had accepted without questioning that housing for blacks was no business of his. Their housing was the responsibility of the government, and Harald's sympathies for the victims of the injustices he knew existed led him to do no more than vote against a "government that could have done more." Claudia, who "worked at clinics to staunch the wounds racism gashed" never risked her own safety "by offering asylum when she had deduced they were activists on the run from the police, nor by acting as the kind of conduit between revolutionaries her to-and-fro in communities would have made possible."
In their inaction and refusal to take responsibility, they have been complicit in creating a society where people "breathed violence along with cigarette smoke."
In the midst of their pain and confusion, the Lindgards find a temporary refuge in the Motsamai family. Hamilton Motsamai becomes their son's Senior Counsel after he is recommended to the Lindgards, by a knowledgeable white friend of Harald's, as "eminently capable" of saving Duncan from a lengthy prison sentence or worse.
Ironically, the Lindgards find comfort and support among people who owe them the least. Motsamai becomes the friend and lawyer who supports Duncan and his parents through a harrowing and unfamiliar process. In his discussions with the jailed Duncan, he plays "father when father cannot" and for Harald and Claudia he is the "man who brings from the Other Side the understanding of people in trouble ..." In a visit to his home, Harald and Claudia meet Motsamai's family - a working-class brother-in-law, someone's sister, a professor friend, his wife and children. They display a vitality and awareness of the world around them that is in sharp contrast to the Lindgard's much more homogeneous and bland lives.
In the same manner, Khulu Dladla, Duncan's gay black housemate, becomes Harald and Claudia's proxy son who conveys Messages to them from Duncan that Duncan can't bring himself to relate.
The relationships between black South Africans and the Lindgards suggest that Gordimer sees the salvation of the country depending on what they can reconcile to. When Afrikaners appear, and there are only two Afrikaner characters in the book, there is a sense of an irrelevant people who have little to contribute to the future. Motsamai sums them up in commenting on the job of warder. The `chaps' who fill the job of warder understand nothing, he says, and the job itself is "sheltered employment for retarded sons of the Boere."
Society seeks the truth of Duncan's crime in the courtroom. Although Duncan is guilty, the circumstances of the killing raise doubt of his intent and, therefore, of whether he will come out of prison a middle-aged man or a relatively young one. Motsamai argues that it was unendurable provocation and the proximity of the gun, lying on a nearby table through carelessness and coincidence, that drove Duncan to kill. Duncan's future depends on whether or not the judges believe that he did not intend to kill his friend.
It is Motsamai, whose people have suffered the most under apartheid, who reminds the court that incarceration is not meant to punish but to rehabilitate. It should not be used to identify a scapegoat for society's ills, he says, a scapegoat "whose punishment therefore must be harsh and heavy enough to deal with collective guilt."
In the end, the truth is established. Duncan has been sentenced. But the issues of truth and guilt are not put to rest. Duncan has committed a horrible crime, and he will pay. But his sentence has been tempered by understanding and mercy from the court and he will not pay with his life. But there is no sense of a chapter closing.
Harald hears in the public debate over abolishing the death penalty that there are many for whom execution is "the only reconciliation there is ..." Eventually Duncan will leave prison, but Harald knows that Duncan "shall have this will to his death surrounding him as long as he lives."
In that grim view Gordimer invites a comparison. If one unplanned death, carried out in a moment of tumultuous emotion, can evoke such a determination not to forgive, what must be the result of apartheid's routine torture and murders of tens of thousands over the years? The state may be able to suspend punishment but only the individual can forgive. Each South African must make their own peace with their country's history. And because it is an individual choice, South Africa will always contain in it those who will never agree to be reconciled.
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